Jan. 19, 2018
SOUTHERN NEWS AND TRENDS
SPECIAL REPORT – Trump’s anti-labor judicial pick for North Carolina
INSTITUTE INDEX – Florida inmates strike over wages
SOUTHERN NEWS AND TRENDS
WHAT CONGRESS’S FAILURE TO EXTEND CHIP FUNDING WOULD MEAN FOR THE SOUTH: Federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers nearly 3 million children in the South, isn’t guaranteed for every state past Jan. 19. If Congress fails to find a fix, the results would be disastrous in a region consistently ranked low for children’s health outcomes. (1/19/2018)
GERRYMANDERING’S COLLATERAL DAMAGE AT CENTER OF FIGHT OVER VIRGINIA HOUSE CONTROL: Split precincts where some voters cast ballots in one race and some in another are to blame for the chaos in a critical Virginia House race that’s still being contested in the courts — and the problem is even worse in some other heavily gerrymandered states like North Carolina. (1/16/2018)
TRUMP’S OFFSHORE DRILLING PLAN FLOUTS LAW BY IGNORING GOVERNORS’ WISHES: The Trump administration announced an aggressive proposal to bring offshore drilling to Southern states where governors oppose it, despite a federal law that says their wishes should be considered. Governors, both Democrat and Republican, say they plan to fight it. (1/5/2018)
WHAT FARMWORKERS CAN TEACH HOLLYWOOD ABOUT ENDING SEXUAL HARASSMENT: A proven model for creating a safer workplace exists in Florida’s tomato fields. (1/18/2018)
SPECIAL REPORT – The anti-labor roots of Trump’s controversial judicial pick
By Billy Corriher
President Donald Trump nominated lawyer Thomas Farr to a lifetime seat as a federal judge in eastern North Carolina, and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Farr this week — despite opposition from Democratic senators, labor unions, and civil rights advocates. His nomination now goes to the full Senate. Critics have pointed to Farr’s role in intimidation of black voters by the 1990 campaign of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and his involvement in crafting a 2013 voting law in that state which a federal court said targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Besides his role in voter suppression efforts, Farr, 63, also worked for a group founded by Southern business owners with the goal of suppressing workers’ right to organize. Farr’s career as an attorney began in 1979 at the National Right to Work Foundation, the legal arm of the National Right to Work Committee, which was created in 1955 by a group that included wealthy industrialists from North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. Journalist Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money” discussed the role of the Koch brothers’ father, Fred Koch, in launching a forerunner to the Committee, which has received millions of dollars from the Koch brothers and other big business interests.
The Foundation promotes so-called right to work laws, which prohibit requiring workers at a unionized workplace who are not members of the union to pay what are known as “fair share” fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, which benefits union and nonunion employees alike.
The Foundation and its legal arm carried out a decades-long campaign to undermine public-employee unions by having fair share fees ruled unconstitutional. In addition to helping the group’s efforts to impoverish unions, Farr also played a key role in a constitutional challenge to a California law allowing public employees to collectively bargain.
Farr’s efforts to curb voting rights for African Americans are not unrelated to his efforts to curb workers’ organizing rights. As Facing South has reported, the right to work movement was launched by extreme pro-segregationist elements in the 1930s and ‘40s South.
In 1936, for example, Texas oil lobbyist Vance Muse founded the Christian American Association, the first group to champion right to work as a political goal. Muse warned that unionization meant that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Moshe Marvit of The Century Foundation notes that right to work was “held out to white ethnic workers as a way to distance themselves from workers of other ethnicities and races.”
Muse’s organization successfully lobbied for right to work laws in states across the South. After all of the Southern studies passed right to work laws or state constitutional amendments, right to work advocates shifted their focus to Midwestern states that used to be union strongholds, like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Representing the reactionary
Promoting right to work laws is not the only way Farr has sought to tip the balance of power away from workers and toward the bosses.
In 1981, he became a lawyer for the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, working for U.S. Sen. John East of North Carolina. East had extremely conservative views, leading Helms to once joke that he was the “liberal Senator from North Carolina.” Like Helms, East had a record of opposing civil rights laws and attacking labor unions. East sponsored bills to expand the reach of state right to work laws and limit federal laws protecting workers.
A few years later, Farr began his decades-long partnership at a North Carolina law firm founded by Tom Ellis, who advised East and Helms and served on the board of directors of the Pioneer Fund, a nonprofit created in 1937 to fund research projects aimed at proving the genetic superiority of white people. The Fund has been designated as a racist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
During his tenure at Ellis’ firm, Farr defended a range of companies facing discrimination lawsuits. Alliance for Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy group, concluded that Farr chose to “build his career undermining workers’ rights.”
In 2003, for example, he persuaded a court to strike down a local employment discrimination law as violating the North Carolina Constitution. He defended pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in a lawsuit claiming that a supervisor sexually harassed his female workers and called them “stupid, retarded, and awful.” He represented a company sued by a woman who was not hired for a job that a supervisor told her was “too hard and too rough for a woman.” And he defended a car rental company accused of discriminating against African-American customers in the Carolinas.
In 1997, Farr argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should reinstate a North Carolina law that singled out victims of workplace asbestos poisoning by imposing tougher requirements on their workers’ compensation lawsuits. Farr also defended American National Can when it was accused of refusing to allow union representatives access to the plant to investigate charges that workers were subjected to extreme heat.
More recently, when North Carolina’s notorious 2016 anti-transgender “bathroom bill” eliminated the right of all workers to sue for discrimination in state court, Farr supported the change. Legislators quickly repealed the provision after strong criticism from civil rights groups, the business community, and the media.
Trump reshapes the judiciary
Farr is not the only Trump judicial nominee with a history of defending corporate misconduct and advocating for corporate interests. Trump is rapidly changing the federal judiciary, and his judges will have a dramatic impact on the rights of workers — especially in the South, where most of the anti-worker nominees will preside.
For example, Trump has appointed extreme jurists to the already-conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Judges there have issued nationwide injunctions against many Obama-era regulations, including the Department of Labor’s regulations to raise standards for overtime pay.
The Senate recently confirmed the president’s appointment to that circuit of former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who expressed fondness for a discredited century-old legal theory that allowed judges to strike down New Deal laws protecting workers as violating unwritten “economic” rights. Another 5th Circuit nominee, Kurt Engelhardt, has a record of throwing out sexual harassment lawsuits as a federal judge in Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Trump’s successful Supreme Court nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, could soon cast the deciding vote to cripple public employee unions in Janus v. AFSCME, a case out of Illinois in which anti-union groups argue that charging public employees fair share fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining violates the First Amendment. The Court was poised to strike down fair share fees in 2016, but after conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died, the justices deadlocked 4-4. President Trump nominated Gorsuch, who had a clear record of ruling for corporations over workers, after Senate Republicans refused to confirm President Obama’s nominee and left the court short-staffed for a year.
If Gorsuch votes as expected, Janus could fatally undermine the funding of public employee unions — the culmination of a legal crusade started with lawsuits by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, where Farr began his legal career. The Foundation has been filing lawsuits challenging fair share fees for decades, and it supports the plaintiffs in Janus.
A ruling against the unions in Janus would essentially make every state a “right to work” state when it comes to public employees. This could be particularly harmful to workers in the South, where fewer private-sector employees are unionized, and to African Americans, who are more likely to be employed in the public sector.
President Trump has put forth judicial nominees who are unqualified or appear biased against certain people, including several lawyers who have said terrible things about LGBT people. Some of these nominees have had to withdraw due to concerns about inexperience or their failure to disclose controversial statements when they were vetted. But to date, Farr is the only nominee with close ties to white supremacists and anti-labor groups.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Farr on Jan. 18, but some members including Democrats Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey are demanding a new hearing on the nominee. That’s because at his brief hearing in September, Farr denied knowledge of voter intimidation by the 1990 Helms campaign, which he represented as a lawyer. But since then, the North Carolina-based Indy Week newspaper interviewed a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on the case and claimed Farr was aware of the misconduct.
In December, Booker wrote to Farr and the Justice Department to demand more information about the nominee’s role in Helms’ voter intimidation effort. He also called on Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley of Iowa to delay action on Farr. But Senate leaders have not responded to Harris’s and Booker’s requests, and they appear poised to continue their rapid pace of confirmations.
If Farr is confirmed by the Senate, his record suggests that workers, like victims of discrimination, will find little protection for their rights in his courtroom.
(To comment on or to share this story, click here. Photo is a screenshot from the C-SPAN broadcast of Farr’s September 2017 Senate Judiciary hearing.)
INSTITUTE INDEX – Florida inmates strike for better wages and conditions
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for a crime”: 13th
Amount of money the prison industry makes annually off the labor of the 900,000 prisoners who work for little to nothing: $2 billion.
Of the six states that do not pay inmates for their labor at all, percent that are in the South: 100*
Rank of Florida among the states with the highest prison populations: 3
Number of people incarcerated in Florida’s prisons: about 100,000
Highest hourly pay for a Florida inmate working a regular prison job, in cents: 32
Amount Florida prisoners were paid for performing dangerous cleanup duties in the wake of Hurricane Irma: nothing
Amount a $4 can of soup costs in Florida’s prison canteens, which the inmates call “highway robbery without a gun”: $17
On Jan. 15, the federal holiday honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., number of Florida prisoners expected to participate in Operation PUSH — a nonviolent strike to demand better pay, lower canteen prices and parole incentives: thousands
Date on which a group of Haitian inmates in Florida released a statement in support of the strike, saying that “prisons in America are nothing but a different form of slavery plantations and the citizens of the country are walking zombie banks”: 12/28/2017
Number of strike organizers placed in solitary confinement in the days before the strike began: dozens
Number of expected Operation PUSH strike locations: at least 8
Number of days the prisoners are expected to strike: at least 30
Number of groups that have pledged solidarity to the striking prisoners: over 140
Date on which a solidarity “phone zap” is scheduled to support the strikers: 1/22/2018
Cost for Florida to hire outside companies to perform the work duties of the striking prisoners: millions of dollars
Year in which the largest prison strike in U.S. history took place: 2016
Estimated number of prisoners who took part in that action: 20,000
Number of Florida prisons where there were work stoppages as part of that strike: 4
* Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas
(Click on figure to go to source. To comment on or to share this index, click here. Photo of an inmate working from the Florida Department of Corrections website.)
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